A reason to be cheerful: how we’ve inspired future leaders in lockdown

A reason to be cheerful: how we’ve inspired future leaders in lockdown

Things were all going so well.

Work experience, such a crucial part of a student’s development, was flourishing. It had become mandatory in college study programmes and for schools in Key Stage 5. It was being recommended as best practice for students in Key Stage 4. An increased focus on Gatsby benchmarking has resulted in a significant number of schools reintroducing work-experience as part of the curriculum.

A year ago, thousands of students had already secured placements for the end of the school year. I felt extraordinarily lucky to be part of this flowering of opportunity. I was working at The Changing Education Group (an Education Business Partnership) which had helped over half-a-million young people reap the rewards of work experience.

And then March 2020 happened. The 16th of the month to be precise. Some remember it as the date when the pubs closed. Others for sport stopping. For many, it was the day they started working from home. Or, worse, they were told there was no work left for them to do.

For so many teenagers it was a massive kick in the teeth. Employers told us they no longer had time for work experience. Or that their doors were shut. They were focused on saving their businesses or furloughing their staff. Schools understandably expressed safeguarding concerns around any form of work experience going ahead.

The future looked very bleak indeed. This hit me harder than most. I am Head of Strategic Development & Innovation here and I love my job. But as a teenager, there was no indication that I had any sort of professional future. At 14 I left mainstream education. At 16 I lost a parent. I was, in all honesty, a mess.

My salvation came through vocational training. I was lucky to be offered some experience in a business, and something clicked. I suddenly had a vision on how life could be. How ‘work’ could actually provide a structure and meaning to life. I grabbed the opportunity and never looked back.

So you can imagine how I felt, waking-up on the 17th March. Like you, I was worried about the virus that was about to blow through the country, but I also saw the immediate effect that this would have on a generation of students whose work experience would be cancelled. Who might never be inspired by that time spent in the world of work.

In short, I made an immediate resolution to do something to help. The resolution quickly became a crusade.

The challenge was pretty simple. There’s a phrase: ‘If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain’. In this case, if the students couldn’t get to their work experience, we had to bring the work experience to the students. And there’s no point being in charge of innovation if you can’t innovate!

So we created virtual work experience (VWEX). That meant utilising best-in-class technology to bring together employers and students online. Fortunately, twelve years of experience doing it offline meant we knew exactly what was required, so instead of searching for someone else’s solution, we built our own.

This meant providing every pupil with a meaningful work experience outcome in-line with the time attributed within the curriculum. It meant encouraging employers to produce short, selfie-style videos to show what their work involved. We called them Sector Spotlight Sessions and you can take a look at them here. It meant capturing every student’s interests and qualities through a tailored questionnaire. It meant linking them to a placement linked to their aspirations (which is actually easier online because they can experience the best job irrespective of geography). And it meant capturing student and employer feedback to ensure maximum impact and learning.

We did it by utilising our very own Student App (where students manage their own experience) and the associated Connect Web Platform (where work experience officers within schools can manage, track and monitor their progress and wellbeing). In conjunction, this provides all the information required to meet Gatsby and Ofsted requirements.

The results have been amazing. 21,500 students have already secured online placements and there are many more available. Employers have joined in their droves, delighted to give something back, and also to meet their potential leaders of tomorrow.

The current news cycle is encouraging for so many reasons. Schools are open for all. It’s not impossible that work experience will be allowed in person before the summer is out. But although Covid is on the wane, there’s no reason virtual work experience should disappear with it. Because what we created to adapt to lockdown has a whole number of associated benefits, from the breadth of choice it provides students to the safeguarding it enables across the programme.

I know personally that the best way to inspire a future leader is to allow them to experience the workplace. To understand the buzz of working in a team; to see what it means to set goals and meet them; to innovate, problem-solve and succeed. I’d never have believed it on March 16th 2020, but Covid has helped us make that experience easier and more flexible than ever before.

Author: Roman Didben (Head of Strategic Development & Innovation)

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